When the Oakland A's acquired Chris Young in the offseason from the Arizona Diamondbacks, it appeared Coco Crisp would be the odd man out in the Oakland outfield, or at least see his playing substantially reduced. While it was billed as a "four guys for three positions" type of arrangement along with Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, Young was viewed as the better defender in center field, and Cespedes and Reddick, Oakland's two best position players a year ago, weren't likely to sit too often.
It's not that Crisp was going to sit on the bench; after all, he put up a solid .259/.325/.418 line last year with 39 steals in 43 attempts. As a switch-hitter, he would help give Bob Melvin the platoon advantage no matter who would be pitching. But Crisp's crucial misplay against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series cost the A's a victory, forcing a Game 5 confrontation against Justin Verlander that proved to be all Verlander, and Young's power potential would be intriguing to a club that relied on heavily on the home run in 2012.
Whatever the plan, it has worked out that Crisp has been the A's best outfielder, and their second-most valuable position player behind third baseman Josh Donaldson. With Cespedes, Reddick and Young all struggling at the plate, where would the A's be without Crisp? Not tied with the Rangers for the AL West lead. Just over a week ago, the A's looked like a team on the fall, at risk of losing its hold on the second wild card to the Indians or the Orioles or maybe the Yankees. Now they've won seven of eight and caught the Rangers in the standings for the first time since Aug. 9.
In the opener of a crucial three-game series in Oakland against the Texas Rangers, Crisp hit the go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth, hitting the left-field foul pole and upheld upon review, and the A's bullpen held on for the 4-2 victory. It was Crisp's career-high 17th home run, but maybe his power shouldn't be that big a surprise: He hit .281/.349/.511 in the second half last year with eight home runs. He has been hitting like this since last July.
Crisp was just one of Monday's surprise heroes -- players who usually fly under the radar but provide the contributions that push teams into the playoffs. Here are a few others:
Brian Roberts, Orioles: After playing just 115 games combined over the past three seasons, who thought Roberts would be playing in 2013, let alone contributing? But there he was on Monday, hitting leadoff and hitting a two-run double to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead in the third inning against the Indians, on way to a 7-2 victory. He's hitting .265/.341/.350 in the second half while playing in 37 of Baltimore's 40 games. He hasn't been great, but he's getting on base and provided stability at second base.
David Huff, Yankees: A former supplemental first-round pick of the Indians, Huff never did much with Cleveland and the Yankees picked him up on waivers in late May and sent him to the minors. As a former starter, he has contributed two big long relief performances in the past two weeks. On Aug. 21, he pitched five scoreless innings of relief in a 4-2 victory over the Blue Jays. On Monday, he replaced Phil Hughes in the second innings after a nearly two-hour rain delay and pitched 5 2/3 innings and watched as the Yankees put up eight runs in the fourth inning to beat the White Sox.
Jordan Schafer, Braves: The one-time top prospect has rescued his career with a strong season as Atlanta's fourth outfielder. With Jason Heyward on the disabled list, Schafer is playing right field and went 4-for-5 on Monday, raising his season line to .275/.352/.389. Considering B.J. Upton's season-long struggles, if Heyward returns by the end of the regular season, it will be interesting to see if Schafer gets postseason starts in center field (at least against right-handed pitching).
Charlie Morton, Pirates: With seven strong innings in a 5-2 win over the Brewers, Morton is now 7-3 with a 3.00 ERA, and the Pirates reclaimed sole possession of first place. As Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information points out, the curveball has been a huge weapon for Morton, especially with two strikes, when he's limiting batters to a .392 OPS compared to .522 in 2011-2012. Opponents are hitting just .117 off Morton's two-strike curveballs. There are some cloudy numbers in Morton's results -- his strikeout rate isn't great and he leads the NL with 14 hit batters in just 90 innings -- but he's allowed two runs or fewer in six straight starts and helped rescue a Pirates rotation that has battled injuries.
Andre Ethier, Dodgers: OK, he's a pretty big name and paid like a pretty big star. The emergence of Yasiel Puig back in June led to calls for the Dodgers to trade Ethier; instead, Matt Kemp hasn't been able to stay on the field and Ethier has had to start 62 games in center field -- where he had started just once before in his major league career. He hasn't killed them defensively -- he's at -4 Defensive Runs Saved -- and in the second half he's hitting .302/.399/.532, including two doubles and a home run on Monday in a 10-8 win over the Rockies.
It's not often that plans in March go smoothly all season. The A's outfield depth has paid off, maybe as Billy Beane intended, but sometimes alternate plans are needed -- like Ethier playing center field. I'm pretty sure that wasn't in Don Mattingly's playbook back in spring training. But playoff teams have stars and unsung heroes.